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What to do if workplace conflicts are taking up your time and energy

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Are workplace conflicts taking up your time and energy? How can you equip yourself to manage unpredictable human relationships? Here are some techniques prescribed by Singapore Mediation Centre’s executive director Loong Seng Onn.

In an environment with diverse personalities and working styles, human conflict is inevitable. Too often, employees get caught up defending their own position, taking an “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach that can drag out an argument, increase workplace tension and affect productivity.

Mediation is a process that encourages disputing parties to work together to solve a problem, taking into account the interests of both sides. Through a series of techniques, the trained mediator uncovers the hidden interests of both parties and helps them to realise that they have more to gain from working out a mutually beneficial solution.

Principle 1: Drawing out hidden interests

The first step to uncovering hidden interests is to distinguish between positions and interests. A position is the stance that a party takes regarding a dispute, while an interest is the party’s motivation for adopting that position and may not always be obvious.

For example, department store manager Rosmah is frustrated with Sally, who refuses to take the Saturday shift (position). Rosmah then questions Sally and finds out that she visits her mother in an old folks’ home on Saturday (interest). Rosmah arranges for Sally to work extended hours on weekdays instead.

Positions are superficial, and any negotiation focused on changing a party’s position will be ineffective. In some cases, if one were to tackle the dispute merely based on parties’ positions, a solution cannot even be found. Instead, by seeking the key interests of disputing parties, the mediator can find out what they really want and craft an agreement that will satisfy their concerns.

Often, while disputing parties will adopt wildly different positions, it’s possible that they may have joint or similar interests. For example, in a salary dispute, both employer and employee may have a joint interest in the financial viability of the company. One solution could be to agree on a raise after the company is financially stable. A mediator should identify and capitalise on these joint interests to convince parties to work together.

ALSO READ: The workplace mediator’s cheat sheet

It’s important to encourage both parties to express their interests clearly so that their needs can be effectively addressed. Also, an experienced mediator will look out for non-parties (colleagues, superiors etc) who may exercise influence over the disputing parties. What are THEIR interests and are they creating obstacles to settlement?

Principle 2: Generating diverse options

Once the interests of both parties are out on the table, it’s time to create options that will satisfy those interests. Creating options is much like good brainstorming. Encourage the parties to be as creative as possible and list out a wide variety of options without judging which option is better.

It’s crucial to prevent parties from criticising or ruling out an option at this stage because that will hamper creativity and limit the possibilities of settlement. Ideas that seem crazy at first may turn out really well. Can you imagine the first time someone suggested putting a camera inside a mobile phone?

One way to create further options is to visualise the resources and/or concessions offered by both parties as a “pie” that will be divided in the settlement. These can include manpower, workload, responsibilities, deadlines, work hours and so on. The experienced mediator will encourage parties to think out of the box to “expand” the pie. Also, options should come from the parties themselves so that they have a greater sense of ownership over the solution.

Ideas that seem crazy at first may turn out really well. Can you imagine the first time someone suggested putting a camera inside a mobile phone?

For example, insurance manager Evelyn assigns a big project to Mark and Peter, as she wants Peter to understudy the more experienced Mark. However, Peter wants a chance to prove himself and is unhappy about sharing the 5% commission with Mark. To expand the pie, Evelyn tells Peter that if he and Mark can exceed the sales target for this project, she will let him handle the next project alone and even increase his commission to 7%.

Do be mindful to caution parties against “jumping the gun” by making commitments at this stage. While parties will naturally want to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible, it’s important to go through the process step by step and to make a decision only when both parties are clear about what it entails.

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